The Battle for Aleppo
Devastation in the Salaheddine neighborhood of Aleppo. Photo by James Harkin.
There’s a short stretch of main road on the drive into rebel-held Aleppo, when you pass a prison that’s one of the last holdouts for the Syrian Army in this area, where the cars speed up. “This bit is dangerous. Sometimes the army shoots at us,” barks Abdul Kareem, before jolting the accelerator.
I haven’t seen Abdul Kareem for nearly a year. “I’m sorry for your loss,” is how I greet him. By this I mean his eldest son, Ayham, a 25-year-old battalion commander in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Last July, on the day the rebels launched their assault on the city, Abdul Kareem brought both Ayham and his second-oldest son, Molham, from Zitan, the family’s village where they’d been fighting, for me to interview. Whereas Molham was a pensive, thoughtful type and couldn’t wait to return to his architecture studies at Aleppo University, Ayham was more like his father—driven and brusquely authoritative, impatient to get back to the fray. We kept in touch on Skype, and two weeks later he let me know he’d been stationed in Salaheddine, the first district of central Aleppo breached by the rebels and the site of some of the thickest fighting. A week later, the news came that he’d been killed by sniper fire.
“It’s OK,” replies Abdul Kareem, brushing off my outstretched hand with typical matter-of-factness. “Now I’m worried about the other one.”
The “other one” is the reason for our journey. On a whim earlier that morning, Abdul Kareem had offered to take me from the refugee camp in Turkey where he and the remainder of his family live to see Molham at the front line. The last time I came here, the rebels had just taken Azaz, a historic and strategically important town with twin minarets just five kilometers from the border. As Abdul Kareem walks me around it, however, I see that their prize is now a ghost town. Most of the civilians have fled, and the best buildings have been destroyed, first by airstrikes from the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime and then, a week before I arrive, by a ballistic missile. The hundreds of disparate battalions working under the loose umbrella of the FSA have made some progress here, but only inch by inch, and at incredible cost—and even then only with the help of Islamic fundamentalists like Jabhat al-Nusra, who recently pledged their fealty to Al Qaeda. At many of the checkpoints, rebels from the two different groups are indistinguishable. “Most of these lorries and pickup trucks are Free Army, you know,” says Abdul Kareem as we reach the edge of Aleppo City. “You can tell because they’re all broken down.” Shortly after that, a chunky four-by-four with tinted windows races past us, the black flag favored by Islamists hanging off its back.
In addition to Ayham, seven of Abdul Kareem’s extended family members have been killed. Six were fighting with the FSA; the other was Khalil, a 5-year-old from the family village of Zitan, who disappeared a few months ago. The boy had been missing for a week when they got word from a neighboring village that someone fitting his description had been found in the river. It is impossible to know exactly who killed him, but Abdul Kareem has no doubt it was the work of the shabiha, the paramilitary forces of the regime, whose ruthlessness has made them infamous among the rebels. “They had cut his throat,” says Abdul Kareem. “The doctor said he’d been dead for five days.”
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In the constantly shifting landscape of Syria’s armed rebellion, it takes only a few dozen men to establish a katiba, or battalion. Molham’s consists of 100 fighters; together, they occupy five different positions on the front line and hole up in three or four makeshift barracks between shifts. The last time I met him and his older brother, their battalion went under the name of Omar al-Mukhtar, an Arab anti-colonial hero. Now they’re known as the Abu Ayuub al-Ansari, after a close companion of the Prophet Muhammad. The name change might be significant. At the dilapidated school just behind the front line where Abdul Kareem takes me to meet them, I see none of the three-starred paraphernalia of the FSA; instead, there are black posters inscribed with the words “There Is No God but God” and battered-looking posters of armed men in Islamist headgear. The only evidence of any politics is daubed in spray paint on the wall outside: “Russia Is the Enemy.” Only 200 meters from Syrian Army positions in al-Izaa, it’s not entirely safe. Shortly after we arrive, I walk outside to use the loo and emerge to hear some commotion; a sniper, Abdul Kareem informs me, has just taken a chunk of concrete out of the front door.
Last summer, the rebels here were hopeful they could take Aleppo in a matter of months, but now they’re bogged down in a gruesome stalemate. I join some of them in the school office. While Youness, a 22-year-old cousin of Abdul Kareem’s and the joker of the unit, sits behind the headmaster’s desk pretending to be the governor of Aleppo, I tell Molham that he looks tired and older than I remember him. “I am fatigued, but not from sleep,” he says, “but from everything that has happened.” I ask if he’s become more religious in the last year. “When we are so close to death, we all become more religious,” Molham replies. He confesses that the rebels shouldn’t have launched their attack on Aleppo until they were sure they could take it, and his expression suddenly becomes gloomy. “The dream is over,” he says, and then promptly qualifies it: “Now, nobody cares about the future of Syria. All we want to do is finish this regime, no matter what the cost.” He asks me if I’ve heard about the death of his 5-year-old cousin Khalil. “It is things like this that make us hate, and the hatred in our hearts is growing,” Molham says. “I worry that one day it will be bigger than our dreams.” It’s only when he sits cross-legged at the front of the large schoolroom and delivers a speech full of earthy humor that I realize he’s taken Ayham’s place as battalion commander.
When Molham is finished, I ask about the rise of puritanical Sunni Islamists like Jabhat al-Nusra, who seem to want to turn Syria into a medieval caliphate. “I respect their beliefs. I don’t smoke when I’m around them, for example,” he tells me. Like all the rebels I spoke to, Molham insists that, regime claims to the contrary, the vast majority are Syrian, even if their leadership and expertise often come from Iraq and elsewhere. “Most of them are not radical and don’t agree with what their leaders say; they simply want to fight the regime. They don’t like the Alawites or the Shiites, but they don’t mind Christians. And because they’re not afraid of death, they are good fighters and very popular. We meet them and have talked about working together.” All the same, he worries about where this is headed. “When this is over, we will meet with them and discuss everything. If they take power, they will want to fight everyone. I hope we don’t have to fight them.”
Abdul Kareem changes into a long Arabic cloak and, with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder, disappears to tend to a friend who’s been injured. With nothing else to do, I sit around on cushions and adjust to the ominous boredom of military life. Like Youness, just about everyone here is between the age of 20 and 24 and from Abdul Kareem’s extended family, the al-Akidi; it’s one of the largest clans in northern Syria. The rest are a motley bunch of trusted friends: one young man, his leg still in plaster, has come from the rebel stronghold of Baba Amr in Homs; another is a Palestinian with three years of medical training. One man, bed- ridden, turns over to take an injection in his rear end; four stand to pray in formation. The injured rebel from Homs stares intently at a bank of four CCTV cameras and talks into his walkie-talkie.
Every so often, rebels go around the room shaking everyone’s hand before returning to the front. When a bearded young man stands up to go, everyone breaks into a romantic ballad in which they affect to be saying goodbye for the last time. It’s not altogether lighthearted; the battalion is losing someone almost every week. Only a few days before I arrive, a 22-year-old former economics student at Aleppo University was ambushed and killed by regime forces in al-Izaa.